Grit, care bears and homemade jam
"It’s just sugar and berries, how hard can it be?"
It’s 3am in April 2009, just hours before Kith Café at Robertson Quay opens for the first time. The café’s founder Jane Hia is bent over a stove stirring strawberries and sugar. She’s never made jam before, but figures that “it’s just sugar and berries, how hard can it be?”
She’s exhausted and nips into her room for a few minutes to get ready for bed, but when she returns to the pot she smells burnt berries. The jam is ruined.
At this point, nobody would have judged Jane for giving up and tucking herself into bed. But that’s not her style. Determined to have homemade jam on her menu, she heads out to pick up more ingredients and starts from scratch.
“I just refuse to believe it can’t be done”
That night is the perfect example of the quality Jane thinks is most important in business: grit. “I just refuse to believe it can’t be done or let something slide. That’s grit, to go out and buy more strawberries,” she says.
With four outlets and passionate regulars (both two- and four-legged), Kith is a Singapore institution. But when Jane started out, she didn’t have any formal training or a master plan. What she did have was self-belief: “I just knew I was going to kill it,” she says.
A learning journey
From making jam to counting a till, Jane’s picked up skills as she’s gone along—skills she never even imagined she’d need. And if there’s anything she can’t handle, she’s nurtured a close network of supporters who are happy to pitch in (Jane calls them her “care bears”).
Her dad waits tables on busy afternoons and her staff will even take home a few supermarket-bought avocados to ripen them when her supplier runs out. That’s how much they care.
When Jane started Kith, her dream was to create a friendly, laid-back, hole-in-the-wall place where people could come together and enjoy good, affordable coffee. As coffee culture started to take hold in Singapore, that humble café has expanded all over the island and thrived in an ultra-competitive café scene.
Kith has also managed to keep its personality and charm—each branch feels more like an independent, small-scale café where everybody knows your name rather than a chain. Jane has made a conscious effort to ensure everything about Kith, from the natural decor to the service, remained sincere and true to its roots.
Expanding hasn’t been without its challenges, though. It took Jane 2 years to secure her second branch at Park Mall. Kith’s Robertson Quay outlet was constantly full and everyone around her (including Jane herself) was asking “what’s next?”. All Jane wanted was to offer people more tables and see her plans take shape, but she was met by a series of hurdles. That period tested Jane, and it was her grit and strong support network that saw her through.
Jane’s advice: get started
If there’s one piece of advice Jane has for an aspiring entrepreneur with a dream of their own, it’s simply to start. To put the business plan down and to just get on with it.
“When you start a business there’s so much you don’t know. And you will never know everything. Just roll with it and know you are stronger than you think you are. Otherwise you’ll always wonder ‘what if?’”
Though Jane has help making it now, homemade strawberry jam is still on all her menus.
To find out more about Kith Café, visit https://www.facebook.com/kithcafe.